Fresh after their victorious lopping off of House Speaker John Boehner’s head, conservatives wasted little time announcing who the next scalp should be.
“Next guy in the crosshairs will probably be [Mitch] McConnell,” Rep. Matt Salmon reportedly texted Sen. Mike Lee on Friday morning, before sharing that text with the press. “Here's what I say in response to Speaker Boehner stepping down,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said at the Values Voter Summit: “Mitch McConnell, it is now your turn.” Roger Villere, the longtime Louisiana GOP chair and RNC vice chairman, urged McConnell to “Resign!!” on his Facebook page this weekend. Sen. Rand Paul, who supported McConnell’s 2014 re-election bid over a more conservative challenger in the Kentucky primary, dodged several questions about whether he supports McConnell as leader on Sunday. And Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign strategy, of course, hinges on trashing McConnell as his spineless establishmentarian foil.
But despite all the anger with his leadership, McConnell is safe for a number of reasons. For one, tempers run cooler among statewide-elected officials, who represent broader swaths of the electorate than the most conservative House members do. Majority leaders are also elected by the majority conference, affording McConnell far more defections than Boehner had to work with as speaker, a position elected by a majority of the entire chamber. Not that McConnell has much resistance in his conference to begin with: He was elected unanimously as majority leader following the 2014 election. Even Cruz won’t go so far as to state directly that McConnell needs to go. “That is a question, at the end of the day, for the Republican conference,” Cruz said recently. McConnell himself is not up for re-election until 2020 and doesn’t need to cozy up to the right to ward off primary competition. McConnell’s job is secure, for now.
That conservatives dumped Boehner but are stuck with McConnell perfectly encapsulates the right’s misplaced protests over the past six years. If they want more “fight” out of their leaders, or a more aggressive approach to combating the Obama administration, McConnell is the one who should have been felled.
Given Boehner’s ultraconservative record and the basic structures that were aligned against him, it’s amazing that members of the even more ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus thought that John Boehner refused to fight for them—or could have fought more. He held out on raising the debt ceiling for that awful summer of 2011—ultimately leading to an embarrassing credit downgrade—and allowed conservatives to have their shutdown over Affordable Care Act funding in 2013. Boehner and everyone else familiar with basic math determined that neither form of protest was an effective branding mechanism for the Republican Party in its quest to retake the White House. Boehner, like McConnell, wanted to put an end to the pointless brinkmanship heading into 2016. McConnell’s conference understood; Boehner’s did not.
So if it wasn’t Boehner’s fault, who was most to blame for not allowing Republicans to achieve long-sought ideological goals these past few years? The answer is more of a “what” than a “who”: the Constitution. That’s the document that gives presidents veto power and requires two-thirds majorities in Congress to override. “Because of the Constitution” is usually an answer that plays well in the deep-red districts that House conservatives represent, but it sure doesn’t when used as a reasonable excuse for inaction. Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor—who, like Boehner, was eaten alive by the same Tea Party voices he stoked in order to secure a House majority—put the conundrum well in a New York Times op-ed this weekend. “[S]omewhere along the road, a number of voices on the right began demanding that the Republican Congress not only block Mr. Obama’s agenda but enact a reversal of his policies,” he wrote.
Strangely, according to these voices, the only reason that was not occurring had nothing to do with the fact that the president was unlikely to repeal his own laws, or that under the Constitution, absent the assent of the president or two-thirds of both houses of Congress, you cannot make law. The problem was a lack of will on the part of congressional Republican leaders.
Where McConnell differs from Boehner, though, is that there is another level of strength, spine, and fight to which he can escalate things, if he and 51 of his members so choose. They can “nuke” the legislative filibuster anytime they’d like, instantly unblocking the pipeline of legislation between opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
There’s not much practical purpose to eliminating the filibuster now. President Obama doesn’t hesitate to issue veto threats, though Republicans might fare better in public relations battles if their spending bills get vetoed instead of never escaping Capitol Hill.
If a Republican president comes around, though? There’s going to be extraordinary pressure on McConnell and his conference to nuke the filibuster. Even Democrats, after all, leveled heavy pressure on then–Majority Leader Harry Reid to nuke all filibusters in the early years of the Obama administration, and Democrats usually just go along with what they’re told. (They ultimate settled for a smaller, more tactical nuke of votes on presidential appointments.) Can you imagine what it would be like for McConnell, in 2017 with a Republican president, to turn to conservatives and tell them that they can’t repeal the Affordable Care Act because of the filibuster? Is there any way that they’d accept that—and should they, given all they’ve been promised?
Right now, McConnell can still blame the veto for why Republicans can’t deliver on all the promises they made to voters in 2014. If Republicans unify control of the government next November, the thirst for action from the hard right will be overwhelming. McConnell and his Senate colleagues will risk going the way of Boehner if they stand by the filibuster.